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The Flat Earth 

In 1993, Joe Henry had just finished an opening set at Tipitina's. Folk singer Victoria Williams was singing backing vocals for Henry on the tour and the two were talking at the bar when headliner Jimmie Dale Gilmore walked onstage. When he opened with "Tonight, I Think I'm Going to Go Downtown," Williams stared, then asked admiringly, "Doesn't he have the most beautiful voice?" When Gilmore, on the phone in Kansas City, hears this story, he sounds genuinely humble and surprised. "Oh, wow. Thank you for telling me that! I -- I'm really glad to know that!"

Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock have all had successful careers as solo artists, but before they left Lubbock, Texas, they recorded an album under the name, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders. The album was only released on eight-track when it came out in 1973, then because of the members' solo reputations, it was released on vinyl in 1980 and on CD under the title More a Legend Than a Band by Rounder Records in 1990. Then in 2002, the trio re-formed, releasing Now Again that year and Wheels of Fortune (New West Records) earlier this year.

"We like hanging out together, " Gilmore says simply. "Butch and I have been friends since we were 12 years old. We were junior high school friends, maybe even all the way back to grade school." He was friends with Ely as well, but the two didn't start thinking about playing together until Ely befriended a young Townes Van Zandt.

"Townes was up hitchhiking through Lubbock," Gilmore explains. "He was coming from California on his way to Houston, and Joe saw this tall, lanky guy standing out by the road and Joe knew it was a bad place to get a ride so he stopped to pick him up to take him to his favorite place to hitchhike. Joe said he had a backpack that didn't have any clothes in it, just copies of his first record and he pulled one out and gave it to Joe. Joe called me up and we got together and listened to that and that was when Joe and I started running around together." To pay tribute to Van Zandt, the writer of "Pancho and Lefty," they frequently perform his "White Freightliner Blues" live.

Even before the first Flatlanders recording, though, Ely and Gilmore collaborated. "Joe and I made a recording back in the mid-'60s," he explains, "the first recording I ever did. It was financed by Mr. Holly, Buddy Holly's father." It was only a demo, "but because Mr. Holly gave me the chance to do a little bit of recording, I put a band together for the first time and I asked Joe to play on it. We'd been fans of each other, but we hadn't really ever worked together." One song from that demo, "Whistle Blues" by Al Strehli, finally debuted on Wheel of Fortune almost 25 years later.

"My friend Al Strehli was already writing some of the best songs," Gilmore recalls, "and I guess on every record I've done, I've done at least one of Al's songs on it."

There's a feeling -- not quite anticipation -- that accompanies any new piece of Dylaniana. You hear of another record or another book, and you know it'll never get you closer to who Dylan is. Still, you have to have it, especially when the project is Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard's A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks (Da Capo). The book examines one of Dylan's most lyrical albums, and its story merits telling because he recorded a version of it and threw it away before making the album over again in Minnesota.

There's no participation by Dylan in the writing of the book, so readers are left with typically contradictory takes on Dylan, as the musicians in New York found him unprofessional and maddeningly unwilling to help the musicians make positive contributions to the recordings, while the Minnesota musicians found him fun, accommodating, and ready to be a pal. Then again, you have to consider the source. Odegard was part of that band, and this book is his moment in the sun since that band has never received credit for its work.

That aside, Gill works very hard to hear Blood on the Tracks as an account of Dylan's break-up with his wife, Sara. While that's a common take, the doggedness with which he connects the songs to the life not only seems like a reach, but it makes the songs smaller, suggesting that the poetry people have read into for all these years really only means one thing. With all those caveats though, Dylan fans have to have the book. It's gossipy enough to be fun, and it fills in blanks in the Dylan story. The blanks will likely never all be filled in of course, but that doesn't mean you don't keep trying.

click to enlarge Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely waited 27 years to follow up their 1973 debut album as the Flatlanders. - JOHNNY BUZZERIO
  • Johnny Buzzerio
  • Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely waited 27 years to follow up their 1973 debut album as the Flatlanders.
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